From the late 1920s onwards, whenever Mahatma Gandhi visited New Delhi, he was usually found at the house of business tycoon Ghanshyam Das Birla. Some of the most important political decisions of this period were taken in this house. On 30 January 1948, Gandhi was gunned down in its garden. Today, this building is known as Gandhi Smriti, a memorial dedicated to Bapu. On the surface, the image of world’s most famous “half-naked fakir” living under the same roof as one of India’s richest men appears strange, if not an outright contradiction. In fact, the friendship between Birla and Gandhi symbolized the powerful alliance between big Indian businesses and the Congress party, which was forged in the mid-1930s. From this point onwards, India’s industrial magnates began to play an important role in the country’s Independence Movement, and eventually ended up influencing the course of history. Continue reading
Category Archives: 1885-1947
4. Patel vs. Congress Socialist Party: The Insurgency
By the early 1930s, the ideological battle between capitalism and socialism had been enveloping the entire globe. Rise of Hitler in Germany, Stalin’s consolidation of power in the Soviet Union, victory of Social Democrats in Sweden, collapse of the Liberal party in Great Britain, the Spanish Civil War, the Infamous Decade of Argentina, the 1931 Communist revolt in Indo-China, the 1935 rebellion in Iran, the Long March in China and birth of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – in their own ways, all of these were various fronts of the ongoing global war between ideas of the Left and the Right. Two factors – success of the Soviet Union and the failure of capitalism during the Great Depression – had thrown the world into an existential crisis. Confused, the humanity was struggling to figure out whether its salvation lay in the promised socialist utopia or the capitalist jungle.
Inevitably, the war came to India as well. By 1934, Congress was facing a brewing insurgency which threatened to split the party into two. On one side stood Congress’s Right Wing led by the party boss Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. On the other were the young radicals like Jayaprakash Narain and PD Tandon, who sought to carry out a coup within the party and establish hegemony of the socialists. On one side was decades of experience in political infighting, and on the other, firebrand radicalism of the youth. Many feared that an open civil war might break out within the party at the time when it was at its weakest and the British government was looking for any way to break it into pieces. But they were underestimating one man who was watching all of this from afar. Mahatma Gandhi was about to give everyone a master class in political maneuvering. Without stepping in himself, he was about to defuse this ticking bomb. Continue reading
3. India in the Great Depression: Forged in Fire
On Tuesday, 29 October 1929, the New York Stock Exchange opened under a cloud of fear. The market had been plummeting for the last five days and the brokers sensed that the worst was yet to come. They were not wrong. As the story goes, the opening bell of the exchange was never heard because the shouts of “Sell! Sell! Sell!” drowned it out. Within first thirty minutes, US$ 2 million evaporated into thin air and the slide continued. Phone lines were clogged and telegram service exhausted. By the end of the day, the market had lost US$ 14 billion – about 180 billion in today’s dollars. The ticker tape that recorded transactions ran for 15,000 miles! This was “Black Tuesday”, the beginning of the Great Depression, the longest, the deepest and the most widespread economic depression of the 20th Century. It would take the world twelve years to recover from it.
The news of “Black Tuesday” reached India only two days later. Even then, it wasn’t taken too seriously. The Times of India printed the story on its page 10. After all, how much effect could the Wall Street have on streets of Agra or Madras? As it turns out, a lot. The Great Depression ended up plunging Indian peasantry into years of misery and indebtedness. The economic distress was further exacerbated by sheer greed and mismanagement of the colonial government. Ironically, the same governmental greed also ended up unwittingly helping the nascent Indian industry, which emerged from the depression stronger than ever before. Continue reading
2. The Rise, the Fall and the Return of Jinnah
On 4 October 1930, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was aboard a ship called Viceroy of India, setting sail from Bombay to London, ostensibly to participate in a political conference being called by King George V. However, unbeknownst to even the ones closest to him, Jinnah did not plan on returning to India for a long time, possibly forever. There simply seemed nothing to come back to in India. His wife Ruttie Jinnah, the love of his life, had died last year. The same could be said for his political career. While fifteen years ago, Jinnah was one of the fastest rising politicians in the country, now he was a marginalized figure with little political power or following. Despite all his brilliance and talent, the political climate of India seemed to have become too petty and self-destructive for him to succeed. So, instead, he had decided to embark on a new chapter of his life at the age of fifty-three by moving his practice to London and seeking a seat in the British Parliament. By the next year, his passport would list England rather than India as his place of residence. For the most part, Jinnah and India seemed finished with each other.
The idea that Jinnah would not only return to India but be at the helm of its second biggest political party by the end of the decade would have sounded farfetched at the time. The prediction that this barrister would singlehandedly altered the course of South Asian and world history by the end of the next decade, would have sounded down right impossible. It would be one of the greatest stories of comebacks in Indian politics. Aboard Viceroy of India, even Jinnah couldn’t foresee what the future held in store for him. Continue reading
1. Bose v. Gandhi: Playing for Keeps
On 29 January 1939, as Subhas Chandra Bose sipped tea at a party in Calcutta celebrating the wedding of his eldest nephew, his mind was elsewhere. As the Bose family engaged in festivities, votes were being counted across the country for the election of Congress Party’s Presidency. For Bose, it was a make or break moment. He had positioned himself as a challenger to the party establishment and gone against some very powerful people. The electoral contest had been bitter, with dirty tricks and harsh invectives being hurled by both sides. By the day of the election, it had become a nail-biter. As early trends poured in, Bose allowed himself to relax. Province after province began to turn his way – Bengal, United Provinces, Assam and a sweep of the South. To those who called in to congratulate, he happily declared, “we are winning”.
Two thousand kilometers away, on the other coast of India, Mahatma Gandhi was meeting with peasants of Bardoli, Gujarat, as election results trickled in. This frail-looking man dressed only in loin cloth was the most powerful politician in India. For the last two decades, he had single-handedly picked men to run the Congress Party. Although his modesty would have never allowed him to admit it, often a mere nod from Gandhi had been enough for leaders to become Party Presidents unopposed. Now, however, it seemed that the unchallenged hegemony of Bapu was coming to an end. His name did not appear on the ballot, but everyone had known that this election was between Bose and him. And the people wanted Bose. By the end of the day, Bose had won the election with 1,580 votes against his opponent’s 1,375. There are no records of this, but one can easily imagine Gandhi going about his daily chores after hearing the news, not showing any signs of distress. Yet it is likely that he knew that this battle was far from over. In fact, it was just beginning. Continue reading
Hindi, English or Nothing: Politics of India’s National Languages
Sorry for disappearing for so long. I have been working on another very exciting project to popularize history that I hope to share with you guys soon. In the meantime, this post is a by-product of my struggles of re-educating myself of my own mother tongue.
Before the middle of nineteenth century, Hindi had no patrons in India. The language was essentially a collection of dialects spoken in large swathes North India, but it held no formal recognition. Mughal Empire used Persian as the official language, which the British Raj had continued to a certain extent. Parallel to it were the native courts, which used Sanskrit. Sanskrit was an exclusive domain of the Brahmins, incomprehensible to both British and common Indians. Brahmins were happy hold back its spread to ensure their own continued influence.
The first political patrons for Hindi emerged from the Hindu-Muslim antagonism that was building up in the country in late 1800s. These promoters of the language saw Hindi as a tool to counteract the influence of Muslims who spoke and read Urdu. The initial attempt was spread Hindi as far as possible, in effort to claim most population and regions as Hindi speaking. Since Hindi was such a vague, ill-defined group of dialects, an easy way to do this was claim other languages as Hindi. The direct victims of this strategy became border regions like Rajasthan, Bihar, Himachal and Uttarakhand. Many linguist experts maintain that Rajasthani, Bihari and Pahari should be a different language group. But all this was swept aside in a campaign to spread Hindi. So, for instance, in 1881 Bihar Government adopted Hindi as the sole official language of the state, ignoring, not only Urdu but also Maithili, Bhojpuri etc. A lot of government work and education programmes were transferred to Hindi medium. Over the decades, this situation ensured that most Biharis, regardless of their mother tongue, end up becoming Hindi speakers. Such efforts continued across North India, with much success, except in Punjab, where Sikhs, with the force of their religion, were able to consolidate a counteracting force.
The almost-split of Congress and anti-Climax of 1931
In May 1926, 1.7 million British workers went to strike. It was the only general strike in the British history. The strike lasted nine days and was ultimately a bust. Nevertheless, it made the government immensely unpopular. Fearing defeat at the hands of the Labour Party in the next election (still three year away), the Conservatives began preparations for losing power in 1929.
A part of this preparation related to India. The Government of India Act 1919, the law through which British ruled India, was set to expire in ten years and was supposed to be reviewed and renewed in 1929. That meant that the review would have been carried out by a leftist Labour Party Government which had always been favourable to Indian nationalist cause. The Conservatives feared that in a wave of idealism, the socialists may end up giving Indian nationalists too much. To pre-empt this, the Conservative Government hastened the review process and sent a Commission of British Parliamentarians under Sir John Simon to India in early 1928.
The timing of the Simon Commission put it smack in the middle of growing divisions within the Congress Party. At the time, the party was witnessing ideological struggle between its moderate and the extremist wings. On one hand were the old leaders, Mahatma Gandhi and Motilal Nehru, who wanted to get autonomy while keeping India within the British Empire. On the other were young, emerging leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, who wanted much more. As we will see, the Simon Commission ended up impacting these divisions in very strange ways, and eventually resulted in the Congress Party calling for complete independence for the first time in its history. Continue reading